Nonprofit Chronicles

Journalism about foundations, nonprofits and their impact

The giving season is almost upon us, and so millions of Americans soon will turn to Charity Navigator or GuideStar for help in vetting nonprofits. Unfortunately, neither is entirely up to the job. 


That once again became clear to me when I began looking into a charity called Alley Cat Allies that, by coincidence, is headquartered just a few miles from my home in Bethesda, MD. Alley Cat Allies is, to be blunt, a mess. Even so, it has been given the best possible scores by both Charity Navigator and GuideStar.


This is a big problem for the nonprofit sector, and one that deserves more attention from foundations (Hewlett, Gates, Raikes) that are trying to improve the practice of philanthropy and the performance of nonprofit groups. 


The Chronicle of Philanthropy just published my story about Alley Cat Allies, a group that has been around for decades and advocates for feral cats. Alley Cat Allies is not a mom-and-pop charity; it brought in nearly $10m last year. 


The story is behind a paywall, so you’ll have to trust me when I tell you that Alley Cat Allies has engaged in a variety of questionable dealings in recent years. It used charitable donations to acquire two residential property in Arlington, VA, including the home next door to the home of its executive director, Becky Robinson. (I’m told this helped resolve a dispute with the neighbor over Robinson’s backyard full of cats, but could not confirm this.) Amazingly, in neither case did Robinson inform the full board that Alley Cat Allies was buying the properties. (One board member learned about the real estate dealing from me!) The board chair, a woman named Donna Wilcox, for years has been a full-time, paid employee of Alley Cat Allies, which is crazy. How can a paid staff member evaluate or provide oversight of her boss? (Wilcox left her job days ago, she wrote on Facebook.) The board, which includes some well-credentialed folk, including a PhD economist with the FDIC, has not met this year.  Top executives get generous pay. The organization pursued a costly copyright lawsuit against a former freelance photographer and his wife, for what appears to me to be no good reason. Employees say it’s an awful place to work. Etc.


And yet….those stellar rankings.


I write this not to critique Michael Thatcher, CEO of Charity Navigator, or Jacob Harold, CEO of GuideStar, who are doing the best they can with limited resources. I like and admire both of them. But they don’t have anywhere near enough money or staff to independently examine hundreds or thousands of nonprofits. They might have uncovered the governance problems at Alley Cat Allies by closely reading its Form 990, but they could not have known that the charity was buying the house next door to its executive director. To their credit, neither claim to be watchdogs, although they are often portrayed or perceived that way.


What can the charitable sector do to better evaluate nonprofits? That’s hard to say. Maybe community foundations could come up with lists of best local nonprofits. Maybe other funders could focus on niches that they care about, by evaluating the education nonprofits that try to help poor kids get through college, or the climate-change advocacy groups, and then recommend the best of them, explaining why. (Animal Charity Evaluators does this for animal welfare groups, but, of course, that didn’t stop donors from sending money to Alley Cat Allies.) Independent evaluations collected by others could then be distributed on broad-based platforms such as Charity Navigator and GuideStar. Maybe there’s an opportunity here for Feedback Labs or the broader feedback movement, to reward well-run nonprofits that listen to those they are trying to serve.


Meantime, what’s a donor to do? By all means, consult Charity Navigator and GuideStar. They will spotlight problems with a nonprofit after those problems become public, and they will help you, as a donor, avoid fake charities that spend most of their budgets on fundraising. But do a little of your own digging, too. Research a charity with as much seriousness as you’d research a car, a vacation or, for some, a restaurant. Or give to a nonprofit that you know well and trust. Or turn to organizations like GiveWell or the Center for High Impact Philanthropy, which identify a small number of effective charities.


Do keep giving if you can. Thankfully, charities like Alley Cat Allies are the exception and not the rule.


8 thoughts on “Alley Cat Allies, and the charity “watchdogs” that aren’t

  1. I’m truly surprised that you people are just now finding out about the con-job that Becky Robinson is running. I archived “The Better Business Bureau” reviews of her years ago. Then suddenly, when I made that review known everywhere publicly, BBB no longer reviewed her financial antics. I guess she hired some lawyers to make them stop. Instead, she quickly bought 5-stars on Charity Navigator and promoted that news everywhere.

    Here’s one of the pages I archived long ago.

    http://web.archive.org/web/20131013100241/http://www.bbb.org/charity-reviews/national/animal-protection/alley-cat-allies-in-bethesda-md-107/conclusions

    Did you know that they only have about 70,000 followers and supporters on their facebook account? (Contrary to the 490+ thousand that they display.) The number hovered between 60,000 and 70,000 for more than a decade. I showed everyone that, from those numbers, less than 0.0007% of the population supports her and her vermin cats and this is precisely why less than 1% of all stray cats in any community can ever be trapped, there’s that few that care about community-vermin cats. Around that time (when I was proving how few support her beliefs) there were news announcements of how people on facebook were buying fake-like software and hiring click-farms. She found out how to instantly increase her popularity with some of that donation money. Her “likes” and “followers” started to steadily increase by 1,000 new followers and likes per day after those news announcements. Incremented so steady that you could set your calendar date by each new batch of 1,000 followers and likes. She now boasts 490+ thousand followers, of which only 70,000 are real people.

    Like

    1. Marc Gunther says:

      I have no point of view on feral cats or the ability of organizations to inflate their Facebook followers (if that is indeed what happened) but thank for posting that BBB Wise Giving Review from 2012. Interesting to see that the governance failures surfaced more than five years ago and have not been corrected or reflected in the scores for Alley Cat Allies on Charity Navigator or GuideStar.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. You are probably already aware of this site (having mentioned “Employees say it’s an awful place to work.”), but whenever reading her advertising for new employees on her facebook page, this is a fun one to go to to see why there’s another huge employee turnover — again (more than once a year is not uncommon). https://www.glassdoor.com/Reviews/Alley-Cat-Allies-Reviews-E848138.htm

        There was at one time about 50 reviews there but some of the most lengthy, terrible, and revealing ones have since disappeared. Like the one where one employee was fired for bringing a cheese-sandwich to work. In direct violation of Becky’s dictatorial vegan work-rules. (I guess this doesn’t apply to all that beef, pork, chicken, and tuna cat-food that they feed the office work-cats.) No doubt she sometimes uses her paid staff to flag posts there for deletion while adding their own rare few rave reviews.

        In any case, some of your readers might get a chuckle out of what some of her past employees have to say about signing up working for that manipulative and perpetually deceptive con-artist. Without signing up for an account there to read more than page-1 of the reviews, you’ll still get to see the post subject titles on further pages of reviews, which pretty much says it all anyway. (Though reading them in-full can be quite entertaining.)

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  2. It’s the new money-making scam. Torture cats to death with TNR and
    then as they die-off from “loving and humane TNR attrition” then
    exploit their tortured bodies in the media for even more! You too can
    become a deceptive, manipulative, and morally reprehensible
    multimillionaire like Becky Robinson did by following this
    animal-torturing business-model.

    Read for yourself how Becky Robinson is conning everyone out of
    millions of dollars every year by making sure cats die in the streets.

    http://4fi8v2446i0sw2rpq2a3fg51-wpengine.netdna-ssl.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/03/Alley-Cat-Allies-Form-990-FY16.pdf

    She’s paying herself and friends yearly salaries of $200K and then
    jet-setting around the world on a permanent vacation using even more
    donations for that. Ask her about the $3M of those over $38M in
    donations that she’s taken-in in the last 5 years that were dumped
    into the stock-market. HSUS was fined nearly $16M in 2012 for engaging
    in the very same practices as she.

    More gut-wrenching laughable; Becky Robinson is a strict vegan, yet
    has no problem torturing 2,400M birds and 12,300M other animals to
    death YEARLY with her cats. She even tortures millions of cats each
    year with her TNR attrition (becoming road-kill, ripped in half by
    predators, death by poison or gunshot, slow death by infections and
    diseases, etc.). Aside all the cats that she tortures to death with
    TNR-attrition, that’s 6.6 MILLION birds PER DAY and 33.7 MILLION other
    animals PER DAY that she guts alive and skins alive with her
    community-vermin cats.

    And whales, seals, dolphins, marsupials, manatee, inland and
    sea-otters, and large cats she is killing worldwide by spreading T.
    gondii and feline diseases. She’s even killing rare Florida Panthers
    with feline-specific diseases spread by her cats (confirmed by genetic
    tracing back to the house-cat that killed them).

    Or those boiled-alive animals with a “Cat Food!” label that she
    gleefully accepts from PestSmart and is turned into TNR-grants to
    perpetuate the Kill-Animals-for-Kitties gravy-train profiteering.

    She’s a Typhoid-Mary Vegan destroying BILLIONS of animals. The
    absolute worst carnage and torturing of animals in the history of
    humanity being single-handedly caused by A VEGAN.

    I’m really surprised that every last vegan on earth hasn’t
    synthetic-tarred and faux-feathered her yet.

    Like

    1. Paul says:

      It’s a real shame that people like you would take a really serious topic as an opportunity to grandstand about anti-TNR stuff. There are plenty of real, legitimate concerns about this organization and the people in charge of it. Leave your weird agenda out of it.

      Like

      1. The FACT that you are torturing to death over 40 MILLION animals to death DAILY (just in the lower-48 of the USA alone) with your community-vermin cats isn’t a serious issue for you? Of course it isn’t “serious” for you, is it. This is why everyone is now realizing that the only solution is to destroy every last free roaming cat, collared or not, because stray collared cats are the very source of every last community-vermin feral cat. If we don’t destroy the stray collared ones too then we’ll have done absolutely nothing to solve the worldwide ecological disaster that people like you have created and perpetuate with your TNR con-game. NOT ONE community, ANYWHERE on earth has reduced cat populations through the use of TNR. Not even in the UK where they invented and have been practicing that lie have they managed to reduce cats. They’ve only DOUBLED cat populations in sixty years of TNR. And let us not forget that their practice of TNR also drove their ONE AND ONLY native wildcat species to extinction too. Nice plan! Promote TNR some more. How many more species are you going to happily drive to extinction with your invasive-species community-vermin cats.

        Like

  3. Rachel Mccrystal says:

    I may need to get a subscription to read the full article. Thanks for all your work, A quick note tho- Animal Charity Evaluators doesn’t really evaluate AR groups through a matrix of best practices but instead through what they determine to be most effective and then they recently started checking those groups for good management practices. I’m sure they do some thorough evaluations but bc of their premise they are unable to evaluate groups that are doing work that doesn’t fit their narrow matrix, eg sanctuaries. They’ve also led to further consolidation of resources to a few groups including HSUS and MFA (prior to your reporting and the restructuring).

    Like

  4. Wilda Connor says:

    In Atlantic City, the volunteers who take care of feral cats are the ones who need financial support. They do the trapping, pay for spay/neutering, buy all the food, and pay the vet bills. They do it all out of their own pocket for the concern and love of cats. Yet, Alley Cats takes credit for it and showcases these cats to promote their own agenda.
    These local volunteers are the ones that should be receiving much needed financial help.

    Like

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